Thousands of indigenous activists and their allies marched across several Canadian cities on Thursday as part of a nationwide effort from First Nations groups to denounce omnibus Bill C-45, a modification to the Indian Act that makes it easier for indigenous communities to surrender their lands.
The movement, known as Idle No More, was formed after Attawapiskat chef Theresa Spence began a hunger strike two weeks ago.
In Montreal, about 600 protesters gathered at Cabot Square – formerly the site of an indigenous meeting ground – before convening at Place des Arts.
“If [the hunger strike] is not a reason to call for action for Native people, I don’t know what is,” said Mélissa Mollen Dupuis, one of the organizers of the Montreal protest.
Under the new federal legislation, indigenous land can be leased with approval of a majority of those in attendance at a community meeting or in a referendum; previously, a majority of all eligible voters was required.
Idle No More activists and the Assembly of First Nations have denounced the lack of consultation with indigenous groups.
“It’s important for us to keep the momentum up, because Stephen Harper is stealing lands and resources that are not his to claim. […] All it takes is for him to take a five minute drive to Victoria Island to meet with [Theresa Spence],” Mohawk activist Ellen Gabriel told The Daily.
“He doesn’t want to do that. Why? Because we’re expendables, we’ve always been expandable in Canada’s eyes. I just hope that this movement continues,” she added.
Several other protests were held simultaneously across the country, including more than 1,000 demonstrators in Ottawa. In Alberta, activists erected barricades across several highways.
First Nation groups have also decried the bill’s impact on the environment. The bill includes significant amendments to the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the Environmental Assessment Act, and the Fisheries Act.
Thousands of lakes and waterways are set to lose government protection, and the term “Aboriginal fishing rights” was enshrined in federal law.
In an article for Global News, indigenous activist Eriel Deranger said the change could pave the way for a constitutional amendment since Aboriginal fishing rights are already protected in the Canadian constitution.
“The concern is that if the government is able to push this bill through, it could completely erode democratic rights in our country,” she said.
So far, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has rejected calls to meet with Spence. Instead, he has suggested a meeting with Minister of Aboriginal Affairs John Duncan.
Spence, however, has vowed to continue her hunger strike until she can meet with the Prime Minister.